It’s a warm and snowless Christmas morning in Chicago. Outside my bedroom window the humming of steady city traffic is strangely comforting. I imagine people hurrying to spend time with loved ones. I see those who are driving frantically to find that one grocery store that’s still open in hopes of salvaging the Christmas meal with that last necessary ingredient they forgot to purchase a few days prior. Lazily, I reach for my coffee, smiling as my thoughts begin to revisit the most significant Christmas in my life, the one whose memories always fill me with hope.
Christmas Eve was always the big event in my family as I was growing up. The fish dinner and the candle lighting ritual always carried significance for me as Mama would recite the prayer that was passed on through generations.
“God, light up the Love in our hearts,” she would recite as she lit three candles. At the end of the meal she would turn the candles off with a piece of bread soaked in red wine, concluding with, “God, extinguish hatred in our hearts.”
We would then exchange gifts; always something simple such as a journal, a book or even a pair of earrings. It was the anticipation and shared energy of giving that we looked forward to the most, rather than the gift itself. Or at least, that’s how my older self rewrites her personal history. Nevertheless, Christmas always offered a possibility of love and renewal, and this promise became a salvation to us as we were drowning in the war.
The morning of our first War Christmas Eve began filled with usual chores. Olja and I trudged through snow, weighted down by numerous layers of clothes necessary for protection while standing in water lines for long hours. By some miracle, the snipers kept quiet for most of the morning and the line moved quickly. Three hours later, loaded with canisters filled with icy water we set off on our sprint home. Within an hour or so we arrived home, decorated with a new set of frostbite and excited to decorate our Christmas Tree.
And what a tree that was. Small and plastic, it was bought by my parents on credit, as most of the luxury items were in the old Yugoslavia. Olja and I firmly believed that the tree predated my birth, making it, we often stated, a family heirloom. A bit shaggy in spots, held up by electric tape on the bottom, and barely a foot tall, this tree was the most festive and cherished family member. It was a magical tree, imbued with emotions of love and happiness, and somehow just seeing it in our living room again gave us a sense of normalcy and life outside the constraints of war.
Chatty and in a good mood, we helped set the table later that evening. The best china was pulled out, and the hand-embroidered, pristine white tablecloth enveloped the dining table. A couple of evergreen twigs that we have taken off a tree near sniper alley cradled the three taper candles, a small dish with water (before war that would’ve been red wine,) and a tiny piece of bread.
The table was set for the Christmas feast, but this was the War and starvation was our reality. Earlier that week Mama had stashed two cans of Mackerel, a potato and an onion that we received in a UN “Holiday Humanitarian Ration.” Six fillets, a bit larger than tiny sardines were frying in the pan on the makeshift wood-burning stove, and the warm (single potato) salad was ready for plating. Candlelight illuminated the tree which looked festive despite the lack of lights. We were ready for Christmas.
Just as we sat down, a short and familiar knocking on the door signaled the unannounced arrival of my best friend Nina and her brother Dado. I jumped and ran to the door, thrilled to see them as they were my war family.
“Merry Christmas” they yelled in unison, laughing and joking as they entered the hallway.
From the door I could see Mama’s panicked eyes as she surveyed the miniscule amounts of food on the table, barely enough to feed the three of us. She quickly added two more chairs and Olja brought two extra plates to the table. We were all going to be hungry even after our meal but we didn’t care.
“Oh, I got a gift for you guys,” Nina proclaimed, as she fumbled with her coat pocket. “This is for you,” she said giving me a small package, wrapped in a red paper.
Giddy with the excitement at the unexpected gift, I carefully unwrapped this precious packaged.
“What is this,” I wondered out loud as I caught a glimpse of something green and tubular in shape. My brain, unaccustomed to seeing vegetables for almost a year, slowly registered the familiar shape of a cucumber.
“IT’S A CUCUMBER!!!” I yelled out, holding the vegetable as if it were the eternal flame during the Sarajevo Olympics eight years earlier.
We were all laughing. Still holding a cucumber in one hand and hugging Nina with other, I was crying. Their gift was a sacrifice. Receiving a piece of fruit or a vegetable was akin to winning millions in a lottery. In fact, one would have a higher probability of winning the Mega Millions than having access to nutritious food in Sarajevo during the war. Instead of keeping this valuable commodity for themselves, Nina and Dado decided to share it with us, their friends.
Giggling, we all dug into our feast of potatoes, fish and a cucumber. A few detonations here and there reminded us of the War, but in our living room was a peaceful world, charged with love, laughter and true happiness.
Tags: Ana Turck, Bosnian War, Christmas, Christmas Eve, culture, Sarajevo 1992, Sarajevo And War:How A Cucumber Saved Christmas, Sarajevo History, Siege of Sarajevo, While I Wait:A Journey of Recovery
Hungry! That’s what we were. Three years of starvation etched a deep scar in my soul, one that still hurts and burns occasionally. I try not to think of those days often, for the sake of my sanity. Those memories of hopelessness make me shudder with pain. As the assault on the city intensified, so the siege began to deliver on its promise. The city was cut off completely, surrounded by powerful artillery, snipers and land mines on the surrounding hills and mountains. The Yugoslav Army cut off all electricity which was not to be turned on for years to come. The Sarajevo valley,known for its rich supplies of fresh mountain water, was now dry. Lacking electricity, the pumping stations could not deliver water into homes, and we were left to scramble however we could to find daily sources of this life-sustaining liquid.
Within the few months the city ran out of food. Grocery stores were robbed of the last supplies of goods, and people’s personal supplies were not enough to sustain regular meal patterns. People began to empty out their fridges and freezers because all the food began to rot. The smell of roasted meat briefly permeated the air as Sarajevan’s were forced to use up all of the previously stored food. Neighbors shared copious amounts of meat, milk and eggs so that they would not be wasted. Olja,Adisa, Vedran and I , friends from kindergarten, sat and shared our knowledge of starvation picked up in numerous WWII movies.
“Well, we have two bottles of oil,” Olja said, “that should be enough to keep us for a while.”
“You know there will be potatoes, Vedran said. Somehow in all the Partizan movies, people ate potatoes during the war.”
Relieved, I proclaimed victory as potatoes were my favorite food, and laughed, “In fact, I could eat potatoes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a dessert. I am all set, guys.”
One word was avoided in all households, a word that made almost everyone uneasy with fear and concern. Winter. Long, brutally cold and generous in snow and ice, as only winters in the mountains can be, the first winter of war was fast approaching. Anxious and fearful, we seemed to run frantically around the city, appearing to be in control of the chaos. However, deep inside us, in that secret place hidden from all including ourselves, the place that we seldom acknowledge for we know that the truth is spoken there, we knew that our situation was hopeless. Trapped in a box without holes poked for air or dishes left out with food and water, we were expected to die.
But we did not! The city provided each household with a specific ration of bread made from small amounts of flour and large proportion of chaff. Each member of the household was allowed to buy a one-third of the loaf. For the three of us at home that worked out to less than a very small loaf per day, or roughly three small slices per person. As the war dragged on this would seem like a feast.
People pressed into long lines often stretching for blocks to receive this ration, hugging the walls of the buildings nervously hoping that snipers wouldn’t detect the activity. If detected we knew to expect sniper fire quickly followed by artillery rounds.
In the late fall we began to receive humanitarian aid shipped into the city via UN convoys. At first excited that we might eat a potato or a piece of fruit, we soon realized that this aid was not enough to ward off hunger pains and certainly was not nutritional by any means. The first distribution of humanitarian aid ranks as one of the most exciting and disappointing events of my life. Eagerly standing in line we waited for the basement door of the building next to ours to open, signaling the begining of the food distribution.
The line was moving slowly so neighbors began to speculate what kind of food we were going to receive. Every once in a while Olja and I would chime in with our hopes of receiving potatoes or sugar. Older women shared recipes and memories of traditional Bosnian food, heavy on stews ,vegetables and meat. As the first recipients passed with small bags we all enquired about the rations.
“Are they generous? Do they include eggs and milk? Are there any cigarettes?” we would ask.
As the line reduced, we entered the musty, concrete basement. Among bicycles, tools and old furniture there was a long table and a couple of crates with seating pillows. An old Fifties metal scale graced the table, while sacks of flour and beans rested gently against its legs.
The presidents of the two building’s board as well as a local official were in charge of distribution. Ismet, our family friend and neighbor, was one of the men in charge. Tall and gregarious, always ready with a witty remark or a hilarious joke, he filled our childhood memories with great fun.
“With all respect Ismet, shut up and distribute the food,” Olja stood her ground, keeping in their tradition of teasing with each other.
Grinning widely, Ismet proceeded to call out the types of food and the amounts that each household was to receive. We learned that each block had earlier received a list of households and the appropriated rations of several food categories. We were to receive following, which was to last the three of us a month:
1/2 a liter of oil
½ kg of rice or macaroni pasta
½ kg of lentil or beans
1/3 kg of flour (if there was any)
1kg of chaff
1 can of Mackerel
1 can of unidentified, ground meat-like substance
1 package of Feta cheese
1 bar of smelly brown soap for laundry
1 American military Lunch packet (every once in a while)
“Bon Appetite,” said Ismet, “and see you in 30-some days!”
Once upon a time there was a neighborhood in Sarajevo, the capitol of Bosnia, where most of its inhabitants lived in apartment buildings. While drab, soviet-style apartment blocks occupied a majority of the newer part of the city, this little enclave was a bit special (or so many thought.) Nested on the slope of a hill, surrounded by lush vegetation and the abandoned gardens of long gone privately owned houses, this community cherished the outdoors. The children swarmed among overgrown patches of plum trees, climbed on apple trees and chanced on dares to jump from the highest branches. In summer, girls and boys raced their bikes, exploring the dark and mysterious woods on a neighboring hill. The girls had an especially dangerous game of dare, charging downhill on their beloved bikes, jumping high in the air over a deep ditch to land upon the narrow flat roof of an abandoned garage. In the winter, kids would race their sleds down a treacherously steep hill stopping short of an uncovered concrete hole that seemed as old as the surrounding mountains. Everything it seemed was done on a dare, like the “The Trail of Death” as they dubbed the toughest challenges, becoming regular afterschool rituals, each of children defending their records on daily basis, either physically or verbally.
“Haustorchad” or building dwellers is what the kids growing up in houses called them. And though the Haustorchad fought often, many formed bonds as deep as any blood relative. Their households became extended families and parents could rely that their children were safe no matter where they were. During the school year, the best students tutored those who struggled in exchange for a yummy lunch or a piece of some delicious homemade cake. Winter and summer vacations were spent skiing in the mountains surrounding the city or traveling to the Adriatic coast to swim and lounge in sun upon some pebbled stretch of beach. Invariably they could hardly wait to come home and swap stories and show off well-earned sunburns. Life was great and carefree in this little area, or the kids thought.
And then suddenly, or so it seemed, war came to the neighborhood and the city. Many people from the neighborhood left. Others came from far away, chased out of their homes, running to save their lives. In the beginning the, “haustorchad” could not leave their buildings at all. Buildings often shared a single bomb shelter. Trapped by the fighting outside, the kids turned a small area into their play room. They painted murals on the uneven, concrete walls, and played music on a portable, battery-powered radio. They brought books and board games, but once the electricity was shut off they and everyone else were plunged into darkness.
In the darkness children reminisced of their past. They shared memories of food and events. They sang favorite songs together, teased each other and gossiped about kids in other buildings. Soon, they grew tired and stopped talking much. They sat together in the dark with the grown-ups, waiting for the war to stop.
But the War did not stop and starvation, thirst and defiance drew people out of the shelters. Kids began using their bikes and sleigh to lug water and scraps of wood for heat. As always, they foraged in groups. In winter they waited in long lines for water and bread, forcing each other to move and prevent serious frostbite. In summer, they collected rainwater, helping each other carry 50 gallon barrels up-stairs to their flats. They shared information and the last bits of food, looking out for each other while quarrelling all along. Some kids traded their bikes for guns, while others suffered the ultimate fate at the hands of snipers and guns surrounding the city.
Eventually, the War stopped. The kids grew up and many left the neighborhood, and the country altogether. And while many chose not to look back, some decided to reflect and understand just how much of the place where they grew up still remained in their heart. What they found was not just a memory of childhood bond, but a deep connection to the spirits of their culture and ancestry. They, at long last, found love.
“Boom!” A crackling detonation followed by a rumbling sound in the distance jolts me from a deep sleep. Disoriented and ready to dive under my bed for shelter, I jump up, my head almost colliding with the wood floor. Trying to regain balance, I hold with one hand to the metal railing of the bed. Still dazed, I begin to survey the room, taking stock of objects barely visible in the dark , lit only by the diffused light from a lamp outside. Where am I, the thought echoes through my brain, leaving me unsettled? I panic, lost briefly in the space where nothing makes sense and memories do not exist. It is just me and a vast prairie of emptiness.
“Boom!” Another loud sound, followed by a burst of light radiating through the semi-closed, white blinds propels me forward. I begin to run. I run away from the terror-laden sound, my feet heavy and filled with concrete allowing for infinitely small steps that seem to lead nowhere. I run, cold and shivering suspended in a vacuum where nothing but the confines of the body and physical reactions exist. “I” am not there. The smell of fire permeates the air, the sound of explosions mingles with the blinding light streaming intermitted amid the rhythm of blood rushing through arteries; clogging my ears with a hissing sound. I run for hours, or so I think.
When it happens, I can’t be sure. Slowly, as if someone moves a dusty curtain, weighed down by a billion moments of amnesia, inch by inch the image of my soul is revealed. I stand facing the window, my bare feet soothed by the coolness of the floor. I turn my head to the right, locking my gaze on the painting that hangs above the antique, wood dresser. Even though obscured by dark, I know its subject and the light brush strokes of the watercolor by heart. I know the story of my grandfather who purchased the painting of the villa on the coast of Adriatic, hoping to keep fond memories of his youth. I know the story of the dresser. I remember the day my husband dragged the heavy wooden piece home with the triumphal pride of a successful hunter etched on his face.I know that if I reach under one of its legs I am sure to find a rusty nail poking-out ever so slightly, catching the threads of the mop each time I clean.
Comforted by the familiar, memories and stories of the past safely tucked in the far recesses of my brain; I slowly walk back to bed and sit down. Propping my back with extra pillows I listen to the howling of the wind from a thunderstorm unleashed on Chicago. With each thunder-clap I flinch as the loud sounds resembles the sounds of detonations.
How is it that these same sounds offered a pocket of safety for us during the war? We slept through them, lulled by the knowledge that during bad storms snipers and heavy artillery were mostly silenced. Nature and its power offered us a reprieve from fight, allowing us to catch a breath and experience the sense of safety, even just briefly.
As I watch the last flickers of lightening diffuse through the blinds I feel my lips curl in a smile. Each time the flash-backs erase my memories, I cease to exit. And when they come back, even the bad ones I welcome them eagerly as they all make up my soul and that which connects me to life. Calmed by the storm, I slowly drift into sleep, hugging the pieces of my wounded self as closely as I can.
The exact order of the events that followed my sister’s frantic attempts to reach Mama is obscured by the intensity of my emotion. As I approached the door to our apartment I briefly stopped, holding onto the memory of the night prior as if it were a life preserver. “This is just like last night when Mama was roughed up a bit by explosion. She‘ll be fine,” I kept repeating to myself as I timidly entered the living room. Olja was already there, standing by the dining table, her screams piercing my brain and my soul. I felt my gut drop and bile rise in my stomach as I watched her pacing back and forth; disoriented and yelling “She’s dead! She’s dead!”
Quickly, one of the neighbors brought a chair and we sat Olja down, unsuccessful in our attempts to quell her screams. Somehow, the only thing replaying in my mind was the thought of those ubiquitous scenes from many war movies where a hysterical person is brought back to calmness with a good slap on the face. So I did it! I slapped her once, twice, perhaps even few times more. She stopped for a moment and then continued where she had left of, only until someone else followed my example. Over the years, this story would morph into a neighborhood legend, where Olja, always tough and ready for a fist-fight, was on a receiving edge of a revengeful slapping by a mob of children whom she terrified with her dangerous presence. However, the truth was that in the overall chaos we needed to calm her quickly so that we could attend to Mama without panic, and this seemed to work.
I left Olja to the comforting hands of my friends and, taking a deep breath, I entered the room filled with dust. The walls were scarred by shrapnel holes, all varied in size from deeply grooved, dinner- plate sized holes, to tiny nicks sprayed almost in a liquid fashion. The glass from the windows mixed with Mamas fine porcelain covered the floor and the furniture. As I looked around, each movement became excruciatingly slow, and sounds seemed to diffuse through the room, as if I were under the water, hearing but not understanding. It seemed as if my eyes and my brain absorbed an extraordinary amount of visual and very specific information. I looked at the shapes of shrapnel holes and thought of objects they resembled; a one looked like a fat man, whose belly protruded over his pants while another resembled an apple tree with a really wide trunk.
Absorbing all of this within a few seconds, I looked down to the floor by the dining table and there was Mama, laying on her stomach, her legs folded at a weird angle as if she were a marionette doll, waiting for her puppeteer to pull the strings and bring her back to life. The wood floor was soaked in a large pool of blood that seemed to increase in size as the time passed. “Mama!” I cried soundless, my dry lips becoming sealed. I knelt in the puddle next to her, gingerly touching her head not knowing if I should try to move her. At first there was no movement and then, after what seemed to be an eternity, she moved her head to me and said, “Tell them to get a fucking car so I can go to the Hospital.”
Being a true Sarajevan, whose pragmatism took precedence over all other guiding forces, Mama directed what needed to be done; all the while squeezing my knee assuring me that everything was going to be just fine. Later on, we would all fondly remember my friend Tarik and his insistence on tying Mama’s leg to “stop the bleeding,” not knowing that she was wounded in the back; Olja and her hysteria; the masses of neighbors that kept coming in and out of our home, clueless as to what needed to be done, and the bumpy ride to the hospital where Mama stated that “if grenade did not kill her, this car ride would definitely finish the job!”
To be continued…
Copyright Ana Turck
For Hana and Friends Lost
There is not a soul that is ever ready for war. Sure, living in a city under siege, we quickly learned the mechanics of survival, and the constant military assault gave us the insight into civil defense. We grew accustomed to the deafening sounds of heavy artillery. Informed by experience, our ability to discern the orientation of attacks became ingrained. Instinctually, we knew when to take cover and when to ignore the whistling sounds of grenades as they crossed the airspace over our rooftops. And, on those days when our attention began to falter, fueled by deprivation of sleep and food, snipers offered a lasting reminder that our lives were at peril.
However, physical destruction is not the only truth about wars. Indeed, the logistics of a military assault is a miniscule part of the organism that is birthed by war. What stays etched forever in survivors are the deaths, either physical or metaphorical. These are the wounds that never heal, and they alter our realities forever. The pain of losing those dearest to us, of our ways of life, begins to unravel our center. Everything that we use to orientate ourselves and to identify with for the sake of clarity and stability disappears within few weeks, and we are left with the fragments of ourselves, alone and destitute.
The day after the protests, my best friend called from the airport. She was in tears, explaining that her mother just announced that she was leaving Sarajevo, packed bags laying already at her feet. “I don’t want to leave my friends, my city, “Hana argued pointlessly. Angry and hurt, she was explaining the situation, assuring both of us that she will return within a few weeks, “once everything settles down.”
This feeling of improbability of war ever coming to fruition was shared by most Sarajevans. We lived in a cosmopolitan city, city of art, culture, computers, and microwaves. Surely, wars only happen to those who are not in control of their national destiny. Wars happened to OTHERS! Furthermore, just a weekend before all the happenings, we were talking about changing the place we usually went out. We were planning to try out a place behind the Art Academy since the art crowd was familiar to us, the art high school students.
These stories of heartbreak repeated all over the city. Those of us who stayed went through a myriad of emotions. At first we felt deserted and hurt by many departures of our friends and families. They just left, as if nothing mattered to them, or so we thought. Then, after the first year or so, we became resentful. We imagined our departed friends in fancy schools, partying and living the teenage life to its fullest, while we sat in basements, struggling to find food and water and chancing death every minute.
Many of our friends who stayed were killed. One by one they disappeared in tragic deaths, either blown apart or slowly dying as a result of being wounded by weapons usually reserved for the destruction of physical structures and military vehicles. Snipers fired anti-aircraft bullets that ripped bodies into shreds and detached limbs and heads within a fraction of a second. Some of us witnessed these happenings and some of us heard about them from others. No matter how it was delivered, the information about our friends’ deaths echoed painfully through our hearts.
Grieving for those who had died and those who had left, we fought against the seductive power of loathing and hatred. We still wanted to keep in touch with those on the outside, trying unsuccessfully to explain the anguish and darkness we felt. We asked for the acknowledgement of our struggle and validation of our pain. All that we received in return were justifications of the decisions made and explanations of emotional distress they felt for not being able to reach loved ones and learn of their fate. We were not hearing each other.
Hana and I met after the war, embracing each other in a long hug at the Frankfurt airport, sobbing uncontrollably. Awkwardly we tried to connect as old friends, but the wounds were fresh. Molded by different circumstances we grew apart. Unfortunately, neither of us realized that the war gave us the tools with which we built our own trenches, unable to extract ourselves from perspectives of our own making.
That is the tragedy of war. It never leaves one’s soul and it becomes a main orientating point around which our lives begin to mold. It becomes an organism with demands of its own. And since the pain is so great, silence offers a refuge. Quiet and alone, we hope that the past will become something benign and almost forgotten. This way, our pain becomes our truth and we choose to distance ourselves from those who are a reminder of who we were before.
Stunned by the events of the first few weeks of the war, disoriented and scared, the neighborhoods all across the city began to look inward for some guidance. Drawing on their rusty military skills, acquired during the old Yugoslav mandatory military service at the age of eighteen, neighbors began to set-up check points at intersections in residential areas. Relying on scarce information, collected from various formal and informal channels, they attempted to take some control over the situation that was rapidly turning into a complete chaos. Nonetheless, there they were, our middle-aged teachers, grocery store clerks, librarians, doctors, fathers of our friends, providing a tragic comic relief deep into the sleepless nights.
The city was on a mandatory blackout after 6pm, and this continued for a month or so until the Yugoslav Army cut off electricity, plunging the entire city into the darkness for the next three years. Many of us sat on the floors of our square balconies, listening for the gun fire and trying to collect information from anyone we could. Sarajevans have always loved their terraces, gardens and balconies. For us, they were not just a source of relaxation or a convenient way to stay in touch with the nature. No. Our gardens or avlijas, balconies for those of us who lived in Soviet-style apartment blocks, were places of social life and intrigue.
Since the neighborhoods were small, private conversations were heard by many and they provided an abundant source of information. We observed and catalogued every happening, such as Keka kissing her boyfriend in the entrance of the building for quite a long time, just prior to them breaking up, or neighbor’s son being picked up by police for an interrogation. We saw comings and goings and wove stories around them. Meira, one of my favorite elderly neighbors whose wisdom I always marveled at, took it upon herself to teach me the “Mahala” ways by sharing her secret code of a proper neighborhood conduct.
“You see dear, she began, “all of these women are watching what you are carrying in your hands when you are coming home from the market. The amount of bags you carry, in their mind, is equivalent to the amount of money you have. So I make a point to carry more bags, even if I have to fake the content. They will never know.”
Fast forward a few years and we were crouching on the icy cold floors of our balconies, listening at the fragments of conversations and carrying our own in hushed tones. Our apartment building was situated near a busy four-way intersection, with a grammar school to one side. Deep vegetation and plentiful trees that occupied our attention during school days, now offered a natural opportunity for an ambush. Since the entire city was plunged into a thorough darkness, it was nearly impossible to recognize anyone who happened to move on the street. Cleverly, or so it seemed at the time, the neighbors devised a system of passwords that would allow them to recognize the enemy.
One night we heard a commotion at the corner. Peering over the red, metal railings that framed our balcony we saw a quick, flickering flashlight in the bushes.
“Stop!” A deep voice commanded followed by the clicking sound of a cocking gun. “What’s the password?”
After a painfully long pause, a quivering male voice answered “Shit. I can’t remember the password. It’s me dammit, let me pass.”
“Who’s me?” the deep voice insisted.
“Fuck you, Mladen, it’s me, Emir. Will you let me pass or do I have to tell you about the day I slept with your sister?”
Chuckles and a few “whoop-whoops” sounded off through the buildings, as the neighbors followed this exchange with a feeling of relief. Olja and I looked at each other, still winded from an outburst of laughter and said to each other, almost simultaneously “May God help us. We are alone!” We all stumbled through the war and the pieces of us that understood what was happening coexisted with the reality of ignorance and almost childish helplessness. Unwillingly, we were all about to begin our journey on a long road of pain and fortitude.